Richard Epstein: 'More Probable Than Not…Total Number of Deaths at Under 50,000'

The worst-case scenarios projecting millions of deaths don't take into account adaptive behaviors.


From the available data, says New York University law professor Richard Epstein, "it seems more probable than not that the total number of cases worldwide will peak out at well under 1 million, with the total number of deaths at under 50,000…In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end."

In the latest Reason Interview podcast, Epstein, who is also a fellow at the University of Chicago's Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and a podcaster and columnist at Ricochet, explains his math, which draws on his work dealing with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and '90s. He also tells Nick Gillespie that the stimulus plans being floated are unlikely to help the economy in the short run and cause major problems in the long run, why he thinks local and state governments are overreacting by shutting down businesses and schools, and why he expects the crisis to ease up in a few months.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Photo credit: Richard Epstein speaks during the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, Niklas Halle'n/Newscom

Related articles:

"Coronavirus Isn't a Pandemic," Richard Epstein, Ricochet

"Avoid Redistribution Schemes To Limit Coronavirus Fallout," Richard Epstein, Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Libertarian podcast archives, Ricochet

NEXT: Is Government Doing Too Much or Too Little With Coronavirus?

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  1. Some of us remember the tens of billions of people who died from AIDS back in the ’80’s and ’90’s.

    1. Pepperidge Farms remembers.

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    2. And understand the difference between tracking new cases and tracking newly discovered cases. Who knows how many people have the coronavirus? You don’t know until you test them, but that doesn’t mean there’s now one new person who has the coronavirus, it’s just one new person that you now know about. There’s still the exact same total number of people who have the coronavirus, you’re just weren’t finding them until you started looking for them. But by the average journalist’s logic, if you wanted to stop the spread of coronavirus, all you need to do is stop testing for it and hey! no new cases!

      1. Have currently is an interesting question I more interested in how many people had it. Because they have no fucking idea. If this thing was in china in September/October it got here way earlier than January and we may have just misdiagnosed it as the flu or a cold.

    3. They died on the backs of the poor.

    4. Avoiding AIDS was always (relatively) easy: practice safe sex, particularly if you’re among the male homosexual (+/- 5%) population . AIDS doesn’t spread easily through aerosols from coughing and sneezing. It doesn’t linger on surfaces. It isn’t transmitted through touching door knobs that infected people have touched. Comparing these two seems willfully ignorant at best and at worst encourages people to not bother with what epidemiologists stress is important behavior to stop its spread. Are we being overly cautious? I don’t know. But based on the fact that China has only been able to slow its spread through forced isolation I think not. I appreciate Epstein’s expertise of the law and medical ethics, but I wouldn’t hire him based on those qualifications to rebuild a car engine. Nor will I accept his figure of <50,000 deaths based on his keen legal background. The fact that he is dismissing the estimates of doctors and scientists makes me question his own sense of ethics, knowing how prone people are around here to bias confirmation. He should know that spreading faulty assumptions based on straw man comparisons is unethical.

    5. Giving this guy a platform is journalistic malpractice. New cases have been doubling every 3 days since March 3rd. Deaths in the US are growing exponentially as well and are about to spike. Reason is going to regret posting this. It will not age well.

      1. It already hasn’t aged well. We are at 349 deaths already. My background is cost accounting, not epidemiology, so my numbers are also utter garbage and nobody should read past this period. But I took the average daily increase in the number of US deaths and applied out 14 days. +40,000 dead in the USA alone from yesterday.

  2. More probable than not I would put the death toll under 25,000 in this country even with them stretching and stretching to include all kinds of deaths in the official figures.

    1. You mean like they do alcohol related vehicle deaths ?

      1. or hurricane fatalities.

        1. I’ve been calling on a ban of rum, lemon juice, and passion fruit syrup for years.

          1. It will get you.

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  3. The worst-case scenarios projecting millions of deaths don’t take into account adaptive behaviors.

    Yes. It is the same reason why central planning fails. Any social trend is unpredictable because people adapt to it. You would think libertarians of all people would get that. Yet, some do not.

    1. Current social adaptations are largely driven by government announcements and recommendations.

      Short term, no company wants to be the next Biogen. Long term we’ll see how compliant people are. I suspect the first case that’s revealed on my neighborhood facebook page will drastically cut down on the play dates.

      1. Bullshit to para 1. Society drives that. Your second para emphasizes that: “No company wants to …”. And again with the facebook comment.

        1. You have shit in your teeth Hihn

          1. It was Old Mex yesterday, I think. Please keep up with your fellow Trumpistas.

    2. No. It’s just factually wrong. People other than lawyers have thought about this stuff.

    3. Ditto for fiscal and monetary policies. The markets anticipate and adapt.

      Give it up central planners!

  4. I get that we need a counterargument to the epidemiology models that ignored the counter measures and thereby predicted millions of dead.

    But meanwhile we are complaining about the countermeasures.

    And now we’ve got a podcast from a lawyer downplaying the risks?

    Come on. Surely there is a better way to make this case. There are leaks from the strategy meeting where the worst case scenarios were laid out, and rational decisions were made about what measures were feasible and possibly effective. Can someone tells us about that?

    1. I agree with you complaining about the counter measures is bullshit. But, Epstein is right here in that the projections assume there are no counter measures and people do nothing to change their behavior. And that isn’t how it works or ever will work. That Epstein and reason are complaining about the counter measures and then using the effect of them to prove they are unneeded is an exercise in the rankest sort of sophistry.

    2. We’re complaining that there’s a lack of attention being given to the enormous trade-offs related to the counter-measures and no one is talking about what constitutes the right time to scale them back.

      There ultimately are an acceptable number of deaths related to COVID-19. We have to be cognizant of the number of deaths that will occur due to the global economic meltdown we’ve triggered in order to save an unknown number of lives. If we’re only saving 50,000 lives, we’re being incredibly irrational. If we’re saving 10,000,000, then OK.

      1. That is a fair point. And it is unclear which number we are saving. And since we can’t live the counterfactual, we will never know which it is. That said, the economic damage isn’t that great right now. If this goes on for months, sure but not if it is just a few weeks.

        1. IF this goes a month the economic damage will great. This economy isn’t something that is just going to rebound in a week when we switch it back on in a month. You have a ton of supply chain ripple effects, layoffs and second order impacts already less than a week in. You can’t disregard that. This thing can’t last more than a month or there will be riots, pitchforks, torches and rope. I wouldn’t want to be a politician if this thing peters out after a month of shut down and only something like 50 thousand people die.

          1. I agree. It won’t go on for more than a month because people will just ignore it. And most people are working right now. The only people home are bureaucrats and paper pushers who don’t do much anyway. The people who produce actual goods and services are all working. The guys who run the oil refineries and the farms and the power plants and the manufacturing plants are all working. Ultimately, people are not going to lose their jobs or their businesses because they won’t take the small risk of getting the flu.

            1. You would be amazed at the number of small businesses that are closed right now in South Jersey. Entire strip malls are essentially lying fallow. Even some of the convenience stories have closed their doors. On the bright side, not only are gasoline prices continuing to fall, but prices at Lukoil, a Russian chain that normally prices its gas markedly higher than nearby competitors, are the same as everywhere else. Only Sunoco has failed to get with the program.

            2. I don’t know. Many places are (SF Bay Area, Oklahoma) or about to be (NYC, New Mexico) under martial law. Someone working on a project for my husband in south Oklahoma walked into a Dollar General and said police were escorting people off the premises—”No cheap goods from . . .” wait for it . . . “China . . . for you!”

              So how does one “not stand” for martial law? Without a shit storm?

              We are, to put it simply, fucked.

              1. How remarkably convenient that someone told someone that something happened that confirmed all your biases!

                What an amazing stroke of luck!

      2. You’re talking trade-offs and nobody wants to talk trade-offs. Trade-offs are measures of how much something costs and we all want free shit, we’ve been promised free shit, we want our free shit now! Get out of here with your nonsense about how much free shit costs, there’s no trade-offs with free shit.

        1. Just wait until the free shit crowd realizes how little free shit they actually get individually from $500B in helicopter money.

      3. The right time to scale back is when R0 is definitely less than 1. Plenty of people are talking about this.

        1. It will be below 1 in two weeks.

    3. Nobody knows is the point there are too many variables and unknowns for anybody to really lay out probable model. South Korea is probably the closest and most likely scenario and they didn’t do shit beside increased testing and make advisement to lifestyle changes. The Italians have one of the oldest demographics in the world as a country and 98% of their fatalities have other preexisting conditions. So not only have we made advisements to lifestyle changes we’ve made draconian choices in many places to forcibly shutdown places where people crowd so I think we’ll be fine. The only thing we are even remotely close to accurate on is deaths and even that is probably off my orders of 10’s to hundreds due to the fact we weren’t even testing for this till January and aren’t adequately testing for it now.

    4. Good points all

      IMO, the arguments pro and con will serve to persuade us to do this and that. Not in some final conclusive way but in more of a pendulum way. However much we ‘socially adapt’, it will likely be along the lines of New Years resolutions

      I am convinced however that the virus isn’t going to pay much attention to the arguments. It’s simply going to mutate (glad Epstein mentioned this in his article – since it appears there are two mutations right now) and spread – or try to.

      It’s why I think this unfolds in waves rather than best-case or worst-case. But the worst-case is what needs to kept in mind as the risk at any point in time because the best case is more a function of whether we are above/below hospital capacity not about whether this virus is not what it is but is something else that we prefer.

      1. Nearly all mutations make the virus less dangerous. Yes the virus is mutating all the time. But for every mutation that makes it more dangerous, there are tens of millions that kill it or make it less dangerous. So, it is unlikely it comes in waves. Chances are much greater it mutates into something more benign and dies out the same way every other strain of flu does.

        1. So, it is unlikely it comes in waves.

          Most epidemics in history occur in waves. The only exceptions seem to be the ones with massive or very quick-acting fatality rates. And as I commented, the valid explanation to me is more how we go back and forth in our adherence to social adaptation. Not about the virus

          I can easily see mutations that make this virus more evolutionarily successful and that make it more dangerous. eg The ability to spread more easily in tropical environment.

          And any virus will always get ‘more benign’ in its effect on us over time assuming herd immunity works to externally reduce the RO of that virus. That external reduction probably occurs far faster than any internal mutation that might increase it. Until/unless the herd immunity wears off.

          1. The first thing we learned in pathophysiology is that diseases rarely mutate into more dangerous versions. That is against evolution. Evolutionarily speaking virus and bacterias main purpose is to reproduce. The more fatal a virus the less chance it has to reproduce.

            1. Pathophysiology and immunology.

            2. I’d assume the easier it can infect a new host in its current environment, the better its odds of reproducing.

        2. i read the spanish flu was much more harmful the second time around

          1. Right, because there were selective pressures for a deadlier virus: those that had a mild strain stayed on the front lines of WWI, while those who were extremely ill were sent to hospitals where it could more easily spread.

      2. Epstein is really full of nonsense here re ‘social adaptation’ and mutation

        Adaptive behaviors can DELAY our ability to get infected. They do not create immunity. They do not last forever but more like as long as New Years resolutions do. The virus really doesn’t give a damn what we do.

        Viral mutations will have zero effect in this wave. Almost certainly next to zero effect in the next wave. And will probably only start having an effect long after we have a vaccine and all those social adaptations totally disappear – which is years away. It’s a coronavirus now. It will mutate into a coronavirus. And 100 mutations away it will still likely be a coronavirus

        Humans and bananas are more closely related to each other than either are to coronavirus or any future mutation of it. Just as this version jumped species for evolutionary success, who’s to say it won’t mutate into the nightmare panic of all bananas – and then mutate again into a form that is transmissible to us again by eating bananas. That’s like totally irrelevant at this point.

    5. Crushing the world economy shouldn’t be one of them.


  5. I’ll take the under on that bet.

  6. The worst-case scenarios projecting millions of deaths don’t take into account adaptive behaviors.

    Remember folks, successful adaptive behaviors will look exactly like a disease that wasn’t that dangerous.

    1. This. They win no matter what. Fuck the economic costs.

  7. Does Epstein have any advice about tuning my computers for large, distributed workloads?

    Will he weigh in for or against string theory?

    Why the hell would I listen to a law professor about the effects of a virus the actual virologists, computational biologists and epidemiologists say they don’t know enough about yet?

    Dunning-Kruger: this is one of those times it can get people killed. Don’t listen to celebrity law professors.

  8. I already know exactly what’s going to happen: when the death toll ends up being nowhere even close to the predicted worst-case scenarios, they’ll claim that it was because this hysterical soft martial law “flattened the curve” of the epidemic. It’s complete and total bullshit, but it has the great benefit (for them) of being non-falsifiable, meaning nobody can ever really prove that it’s complete and total bullshit.

    Then, next time around, they’ll say “Hey, if soft martial law was good, the full-fledged real thing will be even better!!”. We’re being boiled slowly, like the proverbial frog.

    1. Previously I thought liberals changing the meaning of “spy” overnight was the most bizarre political shit possible. But now the boomercons are out here denying the existence of viruses. Strange times.

      1. As soon as they find out someone they care about has it, they’ll be calling for shooting people for violating quarantine. Wait for it.

        1. ^100. Moderation is not a trait of the boomercon.

          1. The National Guard will arrive soon. Just wait.

            Ghosts of the Boston Marathon Bomber manhunt are out.

      2. Of corse the virus exists. It spreads so quickly and easily that it’s basically everywhere in the fucking world now.

        The mass hysteria regarding the virus on the other hand is 100% manufactured. By dickwads like you.

        1. it’s basically everywhere in the fucking world now.

          This is exactly how viruses work. Good job.

  9. I haven’t been paying attention to the narrative from radical environmentalists whackos. Have they peddled the narrative that this virus is Mother Nature punishing humanity for its sins, yet? How long until they literally begin self-flagellating?

    1. It’s not entirely wrong. It certainly is punishment for unhygienic shitholes like China.

      1. Those wet markets . . . shiver. If Chinese culinary practices weren’t so disgusting, I’d applaud them for being innovative. I mean, hey, 1.3 billion people languishing under the thumb of communism gots ta eat!

        1. So, you’re saying that, if China had a free market, they wouldn’t boil dogs alive to improve the flavor?

          If so, I’m all for it! 😉

    2. I’m far from being a radical, environmentalist, whacko.

      But, ask any of my friends, I’ve been saying this forever. Something will get us. It won’t be anything we expect like global warming or nuclear war. It will be something like this virus.

      It’s not nice to fool mother nature! She crushes arrogant populations with impunity.

      1. If Mother Nature destroys arrogance, you will be gone soon.

    3. There are sites devoted to how certain areas are becoming cleaner and prettier because the reduction in tourism and human activity is decreasing pollution. A lot of the comments are along the lines of “maybe we need more of this Coronavirus to let earth heal.”

  10. With respect to Mr. Epstein, who is a law professor and has a limited background in medicine or science, I will take the word of the CDC, NIH and WHO over his. Hope he does not take it personally.

    CDC is predicting a LOW figure of ~200,000 dead in the U.S. alone. That may sound crazy given that there have only been 135 deaths so far. But we are not even seeing the tip of the iceberg; we are seeing a snowflake balanced on the tip of the iceberg. WHO has suggested, based on actual clinical and medical evidence, that the actual number of cases, in the U.S. alone, is well over the 100,000 mark already and will rise precipitously in the next two months; it’s just that we have not been able to test yet, so we only have “confirmed” (tested) cases.

    1. So once all those people who have it but don’t know it (the ~100,000) find out that they actually have it, they will start dying of it like they’re supposed to? And honestly, even if 200,000 die… that is .07% of the population. For a once in a generation plague like this is made out to be, sorry… that doesn’t seem like a number worthy of scuttling the economy.

    2. So you are asserting there are tens of thousands of Americans who have it, don’t know it, and have been spreading it for weeks? That would mathematically mean that, except for some hermits out in the wild, we have all been exposed to someone who has been exposed.

      1. I’m not the guy you’re responding to, but I think that’s exactly the case. If we somehow had the ability to test everybody right now, I think that’s what we’d see. It’s ALREADY been spreading this winter, but we didn’t really notice because it’s flu season and this thing looks like the flu.

        However, that’s actually GREAT news because it means that there’s no reason to panic.

        In the coming weeks, we are going to find out there was no need to panic, but by then it will be too late for a bunch of small businesses, and the banks will have a couple extra trillion.

      2. So you are asserting there are tens of thousands of Americans who have it, don’t know it, and have been spreading it for weeks?

        This is exactly 100% correct. This virus is almost exactly like every other super fast spreading cold and flu virus. Basically impossible to contain, and within a few weeks it spreads to virtually every corner of the populated world.

        All of the evidence so far indicates that most healthy children and young adults show no symptoms or ill effects at all from this particular strain of Corona. Tons of people will get infected with this virus and never ever know they had it unless they specifically get tested for it.

        1. All of the evidence so far indicates that most healthy children and young adultspeople show no symptoms or ill effects at all from this particular strain of Corona. Tons of people will get infected with this virus and never ever know they had it unless they specifically get tested for it.


          The oft-quoted statement that it attacks the elderly ignores that even amongst them, it is just a cold–maybe a bad one– to 90+ percent of them.

    3. CDC may be predicting 200,000, but IHME is now predicting 81,766, with the daily peak coming nine days from now and with daily deaths down to zero by June 20.

  11. > the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end

    I am looking forward to listening to this. But there are already 150 deaths in the US. And the curve is steepening. It seems very unlikely that we will remain under 500 deaths, as there are likely very many who are already infected but do not know it yet, or have not gotten tested yet.

    The “Outcome of Cases (Recovery or Death) in the United States” is very concerning.

    The skepticism is welcome. Here is another skeptical point of view from a credible source:

    But minimizing the likely outcome may backfire. We should be honest that, if we chose to keep the economy open, there will be terrible costs. If we content that the costs will be low, and then they are not, it will whipsaw the markets and the economy again. See the linked article above, it concludes with a sober analysis of a “worst-case” scenario.

  12. Epstein seems off-base here.

    This flu season alone, 20,000 died in the US. He’s suggesting 500 deaths from Corona, or only 2.5% of the flu deaths.

    This from a virus that according to the medicos is conservatively 10 times as deadly (0.1% for flu, 1% currently for S.Korea who have done an excellent job so far) and twice as contagious.

    I’m an advocate for protecting the most vulnerable but letting everyone else be exposed and not destroying the economy, but even I don’t think Epstein is making a sane case.

    1. Estimates of mortality rates for COVID 19 are all over the place.

      Show me one that is the “correct” one.

      1. The S. Korea CFR is 1%. 84 deaths from 8,413 diagnosed cases. I used it because unlike most countries SK has had a robust testing program and they’ve been doing it for longer. That is, with more samples over a longer period their figures will be more accurate than fewer samples over a shorter period.

        But I’m happy to use any higher figure from any other locale, it only makes my argument stronger. The US CFR is currently 1.5% (118/7,769).

        At the current US CFR, to get Epstein’s 500 deaths you would only have a *final* infection rate number of 33,333, which is only just over four times the current number. 32 million contracted the flu this last season. Corona is more infectious than the flu. Even with partial lockdowns why would you expect a more infectious disease where symptoms take longer to show up to result in anything even close to just 33k infections?

        1. COVID-19 is acting more like a cold virus.

          This means that EVERYONE will get it. Nearly everyone will have extremely mild symptoms, and some few will die from complications brought on by the virus.

          Other than the massive infection rate–which is even now revealing itself through more thorough testing–this appears to be the situation we find ourselves in now.

          1. Thanks for making my case for me:

            “I’m an advocate for protecting the most vulnerable but letting everyone else be exposed and not destroying the economy, but even I don’t think Epstein is making a sane case.”

  13. Still waiting for the market to fix it.

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  15. As long as at least 1/3 of the population believes Jesus, God, Yahweh, or Allah will protect them no matter what, we are fucked.

  16. “the current 67 [US] deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.”

    As of this morning (March 19) the number of US deaths is up to 150. That number took 5 days to triple (from 49), which suggests that we’ll zoom past Epstein’s figure of 500 within a week.

    1. His 67 deaths was from Sunday, so 8 days from then. He’d probably like to have that one back

      1. And, as of the next Sunday, looks like we’ll exceed 500 tomorrow.

  17. This fucking dilettante needs to shut his damned cake-hole and should stick to intellectually masturbating into his law books. We are only a few weeks into this and the number of deaths is already at 414. And if the only people being tested in the U.S. are those with severe symptoms (because we have an orange ass-clown in charge and an over-regulated FDA/CDC afraid of its own shadow, which lead to a massive test kit shortage), and if 14% of those with it do develop severe symptoms (based on Chinese data), that means the number of carriers in the U.S. is already approaching 250,000 with a virus that has an R0 of 3 (compared to 1.3 for Influenza). The carriers are the ones who are spreading this. Now we have all those spring-breakers, who wanted to show off their tits and get hammered one last time, returning from Florida and accelerating this further. Epstein should watch this video from one of the most advanced hospitals in Italy and see how his high-brow-contrarian-for-the-sake-of-being-contrarian 500 figure will hold up in The States: This is what is coming to us. People stay home and stop running around like mouth-breathers. You don’t need police or government leaders to wipe your ass and tell you to do this, either.

  18. March isn’t even over and there’s already been 30,883 deaths. Reason should retract this bullshit and Nick should apologize for giving Epstein an undeserved platform.

  19. Libertarians fuck up again! Must be…well, just another typical day for Libertarians.

  20. March isn’t over and there are now 41k deaths. Way to go Reason.

  21. April 2nd and 52k deaths and over 5,000 in the US.

  22. On the bright side, total deaths are now taking 5-6 days to double. But that means we’ll still exceed Epstein’s 20,000 number by next week. (But according to IMHE, we should turn the corner by April 16.)

  23. A little less than a year later, worldwide deaths are at 2.5M, US deaths at 500k and counting. How do people feel about this libertarian perspective, pumped up by libertarian media?

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